LIBERTY HILL, Texas — Steve Smets is never the one to mention the time he beat Shaq.

Neither are Darren Masur, Clay Cole, Corby Davis, Phillip Lenox, or anyone else who played on the Liberty Hill High School basketball team in 1988. Yet the story pops up time and again, just when they think its shelf life has finally expired.

It happened to Smets, a homebuilder in Lakeway, not all that long ago. He was sitting in an architecture committee meeting with a developer from Dallas. Somehow the developer happened upon the story on the Internet: an in-depth article in the Dallas Morning News about the only team to beat Shaquille O’Neal during the former NBA star’s varsity career. He had to find out if what he read was true.

“He asked: ‘Is this you?’” Smets says. “‘Did you beat Shaq?’ And of course I told him ‘yeah.’ It’s not like I’m going around broadcasting it. It’s just amazing how the story still has legs.”

The “Shaq story,” as it were, is precisely why three starters from the 1988 team — Smets, Masur and Cole — have gathered at the Scholz Garten, a famed beer and burger spot in Austin, Texas, on a Tuesday evening in early June. While the pub buzzes with life, these three men, now in their 40s, with wives and children, sit back and reminisce on their singular athletic legacy at Liberty Hill.

After all, these men haven’t played a varsity game in almost three decades and here they are, discussing the story once again. They’re never the ones to bring it up, but when someone else does, they’re more than willing to expound on the details.

And why not? There’s plenty to tell.

1987: The Genesis of the Runnin’ Panthers

“Clay and I went to school in Liberty Hill from elementary school on up, and I don’t remember the high school team having any success in basketball,” Smets says, fingers rapping on the wooden table. “I think we may have been the first team to make the playoffs.”

The year is 1987. Smets and Cole, along with Lenox and Davis, are gearing up for their junior year. They’re working out in the weight room when this kid from Westlake — a potential transfer — strolls in. His name is Darren Masur. His father has just landed the principal job at Liberty Hill High School.

Westlake is a relatively affluent part of Austin, and Masur has no intention of leaving the comforts of home for this “rural little place out in the sticks,” as he puts it. His parents were recently divorced, and his mother still lived in Westlake, so he could always stay there. He took the trip to Liberty Hill just to humor his father.

“I walked into that gym and it felt like I went back in time,” Masur says. “It was dark. Just an entirely different atmosphere than Westlake.”

But then he met Cole, Smets, and the rest of the crew in the weight room. Their chemistry was immediate. By the time Masur left campus that day, his feelings had 180‘ed: he was going to transfer to Liberty Hill.

“I spent the car ride home trying to figure out how I was going to tell my mom I was going to live with my dad,” he said. “I knew Liberty Hill was where I needed to be. It just felt right.”

Cole leans forward from across the table.

“You never told us that story,” he says with a grin.

“Shoot, I’m just trying to make you feel good,” Masur retorts.

After Masur joined the team, it was if the final piece had been put into place. Masur, a guard, brought athletic talent as well as a sense of style to Liberty Hill’s old school aesthetic. A fan of hip-hop and the flashy Lakers of the ‘80s (popularly known as “The Lake Show”), he placed entertainment at a premium. 

With his help, the Liberty Hill basketball team adopted several new traditions, including warm-up music, pre-game line-up announcements, gold and purple Converse Weapons and a LH hand sign that students still use today when they sing the fight song.

“I don’t even think he meant it as symbol for LH at the time,” Cole says. “He meant it as ‘give up the funk,’ or something like that. It just sort of morphed into the LH thing.”

Whatever the true origin of the gesture, the hand sign was another one of Masur’s attempts to incorporate a sense of showmanship.

“I wanted it to be a show,” he says. “I wanted us to be the biggest draw in town and for people to have fun when they watched us play.”

After Masur joined the team, it was if the final piece had been put into place. Masur, a guard, brought athletic talent as well as a sense of style to Liberty Hill’s old school aesthetic. A fan of hip-hop and the flashy Lakers of the ‘80s (popularly known as “The Lake Show”), he placed entertainment at a premium.

The ‘87 team was certainly a sight to behold. The “Runnin’ Panthers,” as they were known due to their up-tempo style of play, had the substance to back up their flash, qualifying for the 2A state tournament for the first time in school history. They beat Paris Chisum in the semifinal, but lost to Morton, 84-72, in the title game at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.

Despite the loss in the state championship, the initial foundation of success had been laid — success the likes of which Liberty Hill basketball had never seen. And with Smets, Lenox, Masur, Cole and Davis all returning for their senior seasons the following winter, it was championship or bust for the Runnin’ Panthers in ‘88.

“It was like ‘OK, we’re going to win the state title,” Smets says. “It was almost a given. We had everybody back, we were full of confidence. We didn’t thinkanybody could stop us.”

1988: The Runnin’ Panthers in full stride

When the preseason rankings came out prior to the ‘88 season, Cole remembers feeling indignant.

Liberty Hill, returning all its starters from a team that placed second in the state, rightfully expected to be number one. But there they were at number two. The top team in Class 2A was San Antonio Cole, a talented group powered by a 6‘10“, 240-pound behemoth by the name of Shaquille O’Neal.

Cole and crew didn’t take kindly to the slight.

“We thought we deserved to be the best team in the state,” Cole says. “We had everybody back from the year before, so why wouldn’t we be ranked number one?”

Expectations were higher than ever at Liberty Hill. To steel his team for the tough road ahead, head coach Rusty Segler put his boys “through the fire,” as Smets recalls. Liberty Hill coasted through most of its pre-district tournaments in ‘87, winning every last one. Segler wouldn’t let that happen again. He packed the non-district schedule with games and tournaments against loaded 4A and 5A schools, not only because he wanted his team to be tested, but because he thought the boys could handle it.

“We played Ray Jackson when he was at LBJ. He went on to become part of the Fab Five at Michigan,” Masur says. “We played all of these high classification schools because coach wanted us to be battle tested for the playoffs.”

“It was brutal,” Cole confirms. “This little bitty 2A team playing against mammoth schools in Georgetown and Austin tournaments.”

Thanks to injuries and ailments, the Runnin’ Panthers played most of those difficult non-district games shorthanded. Masur missed nine contests with mono. Lenox — the best player on the team by far, as proclaimed by the trio — was out for six.

Steve Smets’ younger brother, David Smets, a freshman sensation, also missed a few games. By the time the ring of fire subsided and district play began, the Runnin’ Panthers had nine losses.

But Lenox, Masur, and the younger Smets were healthy come district play. And within their district, the Runnin’ Panthers simply had no competition. The opener was a home game against Florence, a solid program that had added a 6’6” transfer during the offseason. Florence was supposed to be a legitimate contender for the district crown.

So much for that.

“By the end of the first quarter we were up something like 42-14,” Masur says. “We were there to send a message, and that’s exactly what we did.”

The game ended in a blowout, and that’s more or less how the rest of the district schedule would unfurl. No team came within 20 points of beating the Panthers — coach Segler made sure of that. If his team built an enormous lead, sure, he’d insert subs. But if the lead ever dipped below 28 points, the starters went right back in.

“He didn’t just want to win,” Masur recalls. “He wanted to win big.”

Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the Runnin’ Panthers dominance came during a road game at Bartlett. The hosts didn’t have an electronic scoreboard, so the scorekeeper used chalk on a blackboard to keep a running tally. At first, he updated it after each basket. But  he couldn’t keep up with the Runnin’ Panthers’ rapid scoring pace. Soon it was every two baskets. Then every three.

Liberty Hill won the game 123-49. The Runnin’ Panthers nascent star, Lenox, finished the game with 63 points.

The game ended in a blowout, and that’s more or less how the rest of the district schedule played out. No team came within 20 points of beating the Panthers — coach Segler made sure of that. If his team built an enormous lead, sure, he’d insert subs. But if the lead ever dipped below 28 points, the starters went right back in.

“I called my brother the next day and said ‘Did you see the box score? Phillip and I combined for 70,’” Masur says. “He was like ‘Really?’ and I said ‘Yeah. Phillip had 63 and I scored seven.’”

Liberty Hill rolled the first part of the postseason, setting up a juggernautian match-up with undefeated San Antonio Cole, a team the Runnin’ Panthers’ believed had stolen their place atop the 2A rankings in the preseason poll.

San Antonio Cole had lived up to its preseason ranking. It entered the game with a 30-0 record. In an age prior to viral internet videos, rumors swirled around Liberty Hill about a 6’10” behemoth that roamed the key, swatting and dunking his way past every player and every team that stood in his path.

The Behemoth from San Antone

The first time the Runnin’ Panthers saw Shaq, his warmup pants sagged below his posterior and ended halfway up his calf. 

It was the regional semifinal in Victoria, and the Runnin’ Panthers’ were waiting for the San Antonio Cole game to end so they could start their semifinal contest. The school apparently didn’t have the budget to buy Shaq a pair of pants that fit his absurdly large teenage frame.

Or perhaps, as Cole theorizes, it was a intimidation tactic.

“You know that saying, ‘I wake up and put my pants on just like everyone else?’” Cole says. “It was like Shaq was saying ‘Not me, buddy.’”

The first time the Runnin’ Panthers saw Shaq, his warmup pants sagged below his posterior and ended halfway up his calf.

San Antonio Cole won its regional semifinal game handily, and turned its attention to Liberty Hill. The Runnin’ Panthers were full of confidence going into the contest, because “we thought we were the best team in the state, and for us, it was a ‘next team up’ mentality,” as Masur puts it.

At the time, of course, Shaq was not the cultural icon he is today. In 1988, he was just Shaquille O’Neal, a transfer from Germany. A rare talent and an imposing physical anomaly, sure, but nothing more. He was simply “that big dude from San Antonio.”

And for the Runnin’ Panthers, he was even less than that: just another obstacle on the road toward what they believed was an inevitable state championship. They had a good reason to be self-assured. In the ‘87 regional final, they beat perennial state power Snook, a team that boasted a player that stood 6’9”.

“We felt like we were invincible,” Cole says. “I don’t want to come off as cocky, butnever did we think we would lose to Cole.”

At least one Liberty Hill fan wasn’t so high on the Runnin’ Panthers’ chances.

“There was one dad in our community who kept telling us there was no way we were going to beat them,” Masur says. “How’s that for positive reinforcement?”

Shaq entered the game at 6’10” and 240 pounds. He had a smoother shot back then, Smets recalls, a characteristic that perhaps deteriorated a bit when he grew to 7’1” and packed on an additional 100 pounds.

At 6’3”, Smets was the Runnin’ Panthers’ tallest player. It was Lenox, though, who took the opening tip. Because, as Masur puts it, “that guy could jump out of the gym.”

Lenox did the impossible: he won the tip. There’s a picture to prove it. Masur still has it on his phone.

“See, right there,” he says, reaching his cell across the table. “Pretty crazy, ain’t it?”

Since the Panthers had no one to match-up, sizewise, with Shaq, the plan was to get him into foul trouble. That approach was two-fold: (1) get inside of him during rebounds to make him go over the back, and (2) draw contact when he was on defense.

Shaq entered the game at 6’10” and 240 pounds. He had a smoother shot back then, recalled Smets, a characteristic that deteriorated a bit when he grew to 7’1” and packed on an additional 100 pounds.

Lenox, as it turned out, was great at inducing fouls on his shots.

Lenox, as it turned out, was great at inducing fouls. By the end of the first quarter, Shaq already had four fouls. He spent all of the second quarter on the bench, shaking his head. When the second half started, he wasn’t on the court.

When he finally re-entered, he was so paranoid about fouling out that he became a non-factor. The Runnin’ Panthers lived up to their mile-a-minute reputation, building a commanding lead before withstanding a hailstorm of second half three-pointers from San Antonio Cole. But Liberty Hill hung on, and when the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 79-74 in the Panthers’ favor.

Shaq finished the game with just nine points and no dunks. Ironically, one of Shaq’s teammates threw down a slam.

“I think he even made all his free throws,” Masur says. “Which, of course, is pretty rare.”

Lenox finished with a game-high 36 points. Davis had 26.

With that upset — which, of course, wasn’t much of an upset from Liberty Hill’s perspective — the Runnin’ Panthers were headed to the state tournament for the second consecutive year. Although it was impossible to know at the time, they had just felled a future NBA legend and handed him what would be his only setback in 69 high school games.

Shaq finished the game with just nine points and no dunks. Ironically, though, one of Shaq’s teammates threw down a slam.

“We’re sitting here, 28 years down the road, and still talking about it,” Smets says. “Of course, Shaq went on to become Shaq. At the time, it didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. We were just taking care of business.”

Life after beating Shaq

For years and years, Masur, Cole, Smets and Davis gathered right here, at Scholz Garten, when the state tournament was still held at the Frank Erwin Center. The old high school buddies would drink a few beers, grab a bite to eat, then walk over to watch the games.

They don’t do that anymore. Mainly because the state tournament has migrated to San Antonio, but also because they’re all married with children, and successful in their chosen careers.

“Our lives are more complex now,” Smets says.

That 1988 team didn’t go on to win a state title. After beating Shaq, the Runnin’ Panthers destroyed Troup, 81-65, in the state semifinal. They entered the state championship against Archer City as the favorite, but something went amiss. It wasn’t a blowout by any means, but the Panthers lost, 80-69. Smets calls the feeling after the game “surreal.”

“If I could trade beating Shaq for just one state championship, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Smets says.

Cole and Masur agree, without hesitation.

The following year, Shaq got his revenge on those dastardly Panthers. Both teams made the jump to 3A in ’89 and met again in the postseason. This time Shaq was unstoppable. He finished with 40 points and 29 rebounds. San Antonio Cole won the state title and finished the season unbeaten.

“If I could trade beating Shaq for just one state championship. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

As Cole pointed out, a lot of people assumed San Antonio Cole beat Liberty Hill in ‘89 because Shaq was a year older, and therefore that much better. But there was another factor in the outcome. David Smets, Steve’s younger brother who earned significant playing time off the bench as a freshman in ‘88, died tragically in an automobile accident the night the five starters graduated.

“Most people don’t realize just how good he was,” Cole says. “If he would have been around, the second game against Shaq would have been entirely different. I mean, David was the most athletic kid on our team as a freshman. He was like a sixth starter.”

The loss of his brother is still a tough burden for the elder Smets to bare. But life marches on. He and the other four senior starters from ‘88 have transitioned to the adult world and are now solid members of society.

Smets, as mentioned, is a homebuilder. Cole is a director in the unemployment division of the Texas Workforce Commission and President of the Liberty Hill ISD Board of Trustees. Masur owns a franchise for Herff Jones. Davis owns his own company in the oil and gas industry. Lenox is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

But no matter how many years pass, it’s hard to go too long without someone — a friend, an acquaintance, someone — bringing up that day almost three decades ago when they triumphed over one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

And for that, Smets has a little momento.

“My wife makes monograms on shirts,” he sas. “And she made our son, this little guy, a shirt that says ‘My dad beat Shaq.’
“And it’s like ‘Yeah. Yeah, I suppose we did.”

This story originally appeared in The Liberty Hill Independent.

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